In the coffee import game, regional specialization arguably presents additional opportunity for marketing ingenuity.
This appears to be the case with a somewhat brazen challenge-based marketing effort underway at San Diego-based IPCoffees Specialty, where the company is pitting its coffees from numerous regions in Mexico against Brazil coffees currently being used by roasters for espresso blends. In short, IPCoffees is sending to roasters that sign up for the “Espresso Challenge” a production-sized shipment of 5- to 35-pounds of green coffee from Veracruz or Puebla, and asking them to blind-test them against existing Brazilians in blends, while submitting a report card back to the green coffee importer.
IPCoffees Director of Coffee Andy Newbom told Daily Coffee News that the idea behind the campaign is to hopefully eliminate preconceived notions regarding characteristics historically associated with the coffees from the Mexican regions from which the company buys its stock.
“It’s both a story about the challenges that Brazil is facing due to climate change, changing tastes, drought, etc., as well as the same things and how they are affecting positively in Mexico,” Newbom said. “Veracruz, Mexico, has a lot of similarities to much of the coffee regions of Brazil: Similar altitude at 1,100 to 1300 meters; far away from the equator; long, slow maturation; overall cooler temps. And therefore they share some attributes like rounded acidity with very little citrus acidity, deep sweetness, velvety mouthfeel and tons of chocolate and caramel flavors.
Thus far, some 50 roasters have signed up for the challenge, and we asked Newbom a bit more about the marketing effort and what the company hopes to accomplish through the campaign. (It should be noted that IPCoffees currently maintains an advertising partnership with Roast Magazine/Daily Coffee News.)
What was the inspiration for the Espresso Challenge?
I came up with the idea while doing our Coffee Roadshows that we did around the West Coast. Roasters were absolutely blown away by our coffees when prepared as espresso. It was especially clear when we would cup a coffee and it was good but simple, then we would pull the same coffee as espresso and the roaster would freak out at how juicy, chocolatey, complex and sweet the same coffee was. That was the genesis of the idea.
Are you concerned that people invested in Brazilian coffee will take offense to this program?
A little, of course, since they are quite established and deliver a lot of great coffee. However we have a lot of roasters already taking the challenge who have been very strong users of Brazilian coffees in espresso and they think the challenge is rad.
Are you planning to report on the scorecards submitted by roasters? If so, are you making any efforts toward transparency in your own reporting?
I am trying to keep the scoreboard updated in real time. I am also putting the replies and notes from every scorecard in the Roasters Notes section (testimonials). It has their overall notes and some details. But I like your idea! I will create a way to display the full results of each submitted scorecard in some way. I expect that Mexico will continue to lead in scoring over Brazil, but I also expect that several more roasters will choose Brazil over Mexico. I am actually working on phase two of the idea to include a way for roasters to submit a pound of each blend to a third-party espresso lab that will pull and score them blind and post the results. But that is hella work and complexity, and will take some time.
You mention frequently that perceptions related to Mexican coffees from the main regions you are drawing from are outdated. To what do you attribute the purported improved quality? In what specific ways have these Mexican coffees made gains?
There are two updated ideas about Mexico coffees: That they are all Central American flavor profiles (i.e. Chiapas); and that they are all generic blends. These two have made Mexico coffee into a monolithic concept that has served to keep quality middling and prices low. But the better producers in Mexico are fighting through this and starting to be seen and heard. The Mexico COE (Cup of Excellence) was awesome for this until it was canceled.
There are several factors that seem to be coalescing to improve Mexican coffee in the northern regions of Veracruz, Puebla and Hidalgo in particular. The death grip of the commercial market — which has controlled the vast majority of the market — is weakening due to improved communication, changing generations of farm owners and the stupidly low market price that has farmers seeking new avenues.
Global climate change has devastated much of Mexico coffee. But it has also changed it and brought renewed focus to the act of farming. Temperatures have gone up and new growing regions have become viable. It is my prediction that in the long term this will help Mexico more than it helps many other more central Latin American countries.
Small, focused exporters & importers like IPCoffees, Cafe Imports and several others are bypassing the typical commercialization of coffee and connecting directly with producers, which gives clarity of message and direct feedback on coffee needs and quality standards as well as increased hope and focus to producers. The next generation of coffee producers is more interested in quality, uniqueness and sustainable business models than simply getting by and barely making it. This means they are actively seeking new ideas, new ways of doing things, new markets and new processes.
Since regions like Veracruz and Puebla have been buried in mega blends of middling quality for so long and sold and designed as flavored coffee bases, et cetera, to the commercial market, there has been almost zero focus on espresso or cold brew. So until recently roasters simply were not trying them as espresso bases because they thought of them as generic, slightly nutty, mild Central American coffees without much acidity. When what they really are is deeply sweet, dark chocolate, grape- and apple-loaded, rounded with sweet acidity, velvety bodied super-balanced North American coffees that are perfect for espresso and cold brew.